On an eventful trip to the Khana El-Khalili bazaar of Cairo, I entered a Jalabiya shop (form of Arab dress) prepared to bargain, and a little too overconfident in my haggling abilities. In Egypt as soon as shop owners spot a foreigner, they quadruple their prices. It is needless to say that by the time I left the shop I knew perfectly well that I had overpaid a great deal for the four Jalabiyas I had just purchased.
The back and forth of the bargaining was a fair battle, but there is no denial that he was able to throw me off my game after the memorable one liner he delivered with his cheesy smile, “lady, lot of fabric here; what is the price of Baba?”
He said this while we were arguing over the price of a rather large-sized Jalabiya I had picked out for my father. After that my bargaining skills only got worse and worse as I could hardly keep myself from laughing and gave in.
“The price of Baba” soon became an inside joke of the trip, but it has also been an interesting question to think about in reflecting on my experiences in Qatar and Egypt.
After studying Citizenship in Qatar and Egypt, my group’s final project examined the difference in citizenship in two countries by looking at how formal and informal forms of Citizenship impact social stratification in both Qatar and Egypt. Our conclusion was that in Qatar formal citizenship allows the ruling family to control the stratification of Qatari society, where as in Egypt social stratification is primarily a function of informal forms of citizenship.
The stratification of Qatar is so prevalent that it difficult to miss. The divisions in Qatar are overwhelming with the country’s 1.7 million population consisting of 20% Qatari exclusive elite and 80% expatriates. Our groups was fortunate to meet many native Qatari’s but we were also constantly reminded that it was a privilege most expatriates would never get to enjoy. The stratification is also present with a clear divide in between westerners that usually tend to have higher-income skill-based jobs while for example South Asians tend to fill lower-skilled jobs and have very poor living-conditions.
It was only after hearing a story by an American expatriate friend in Qatar, that I fully comprehended how this stratification is actively being shaped in Qatar. My friend explained to me that when a new company is formed in Qatar, the owners issue visa applications for expatriates based on the positions that are needed. However what essentially happens is that through a formalized visa process, certain jobs sectors are set aside for certain expatriate nationalities. The informal implications these formalized processes have on social stratification are the status often associated with different ethnicities. For example a South Asian University professor we met said that people are often surprised when they find out she is not a maid or babysitter when they meet her.
Apart from the stratification that is dictated on the expatriate community because of their Citizenship, there are also formalized measures that create the divide between the Qataris themselves and the expatriate community. This is because Qataris gain many rights through their citizenship. For example all business entities have to be at least 51% Qatari owned, they are said to receive allowances up to $7000 a month, and there are quotas for each company to hire a certain number of Qatari employees (a policy called Qatarization).
In our presentation I made the argument that Qatar uses its’ “small-population” and the myth that “they will be wiped-out if they don’t protect themselves” as a way to maintain their dominance over the newfound wealth of Qatar. In his book about Qatar, Allen Fromherz makes the point that there is an informal understanding between Qataris and the Emir that the Emir will maintain his ruling power as long as they are taken care of, and to me it seemed that this informal understanding, that Qataris are the main beneficiaries of this wealth, has been formalized through the process of citizenship and rights it gives them.
Professor Lo corrected my argument in explaining that the disadvantages of a small population are not a myth. Even though their small population is likely disadvantage as Professor Lo suggested, it is difficult to deny that it has allowed each Qatari a claim to a larger portion of the country’s wealth. Professor Lo also raised the important point that in studying Qatar, the emphasis of the argument should not be on how the Qataris protect their wealth but rather it should focus on the existence of poor living conditions that are experienced by the lower-class expatriates, despite the wealth of the country.
When the Jalabiya shop owner asked me, “what is the price of Baba?” he was calling me cheap for arguing over something I was getting for my father, a person I should consider priceless. Keeping in mind professor Lo’s comment, the shop owners’ statement has made me think of the reality that is present in both Qatar and Egypt. The price of commercial interests has given way to any consideration for the value of human dignity and life. Furthermore, it is the commercial interest of a few that has essentially given way to the poverty of the larger majority.
The only difference is that in Qatar, the 20% Qatari citizens are the elite; where as the 80 million Egyptian population experiences a social stratification where belonging to the elite is itself an informal form of citizenship. In Egypt this informal citizenship has been the consequence of many years of history where social mobility has been limited because of the established interests of a few. In the book The Struggle For Egypt, which we read during this program, Steven Cook makes a convincing argument that the dynamic in Egypt is dictated by institutions that have shaped its’ history. Agreeing with Cook’s argument that the social stratification of Egypt has shaped in by institutions, it can be claimed that these institutions have been shaping pockets of informal citizenship and have defined who the elite in Egypt are; and this has happened at the expense of poverty for the majority of Egypt’s citizens. What I gathered from the few Egyptians I talked to during my stay and from the book Final Exit, despite the fact that Egypt is not a rich country with a high population, poverty is mostly a function of the unequal distribution of wealth and the past government’s lack of commitment to create jobs.
Taking the metaphor of “the price of Baba” as human dignity one-step further (and hopefully not annoyingly too far), individual freedom in both countries have also suffered at the expense of the interests of a few.
Where Egypt undoubtedly has an advantage in terms of its high population is in their ability to revolt against the regime like they did on January 25th; and hopefully Morsi’s win today was a step in the right direction of toppling oppressive institutions one by one. On the other hand while Qataris will enjoy tremendous wealth at the very least for the near future, they will have to remain content with the limited personal freedoms that they have under the rule of Emir. Egypt’s long history can be thought of as a disadvantage in the case of rectifying the unfortunate social stratification that has been engrained in the social texture of the country over time. However, it seems that Egypt’s progress is more geared towards social equality than Qatar, in this period where they are both presented a chance to actively shape the direction their social stratification will head in the future.
It is obvious who is paying the higher price for Baba’s Jalabiya.